Seeing in a Mirror Dimly: Doing Original Research with Undergraduate Students

By Bassett, Rodney L. | Journal of Psychology and Christianity, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Seeing in a Mirror Dimly: Doing Original Research with Undergraduate Students


Bassett, Rodney L., Journal of Psychology and Christianity


This paper presents one model for successfully collaborating with undergraduate students while doing original research. The paper reviews the context of this activity, the development of the model, a summary of the model process, and some reflections relevant to the model. It is a story written in the first person with all the concurrent assets and liabilities that accompany such an endeavor.

I have the good fortune of being a professor at a Christian liberal arts college. At the undergraduate level, the college is a hybrid of professional and (don't you love this word) nonprofessional programs. It is a place that clearly identifies itself as a Christian institution while having a fairly open admissions policy. Furthermore, it is a place where good teaching is expected and where activities like research have always been admired but only recently required. I typically teach an overload, so how to fit in research?

The story begins (once upon a time) in my transitioning from an undergraduate Christian college to a graduate program in social psychology. Like many undergraduates, my research experience was limited to floundering through designing my own research project as part of a research methods course. Fortunately, the professor of that course had the good sense to chunk the written assignments into the basic elements of a research paper making the task manageable, if not pleasant. Apparently, God has a sense of humor because I then managed to wander into graduate training in a research factory. It quickly became crystal clear that the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City of Success involved doing research, a lot of research. My current enjoyment in doing research began with the simple realization that I could do research and become a social psychologist or I could not do research and try another career door. God seemed to close those other doors.

A few years later, I was a new faculty member at a Christian liberal arts college, in Upstate New York, trying to pull together four new class preparations per day (we were on the 'quarter' system) and having a largely unfulfilled desire to do integrative research. It became clear that if I was going to be involved in research at a largely teaching college, then I would need to incorporate doing research within my teaching load. The administrative unit that I was a part of at that time extended to me the gift of adding another course to our psychology curriculum. Akin to the practical experience gained through a field work placement, we decided to offer a research practicum course that would be an optional add-on to our more traditional, and required, research methods course.

Looking for a model upon which to build this course, I recalled my growth-producing experiences as a graduate student. There, graduate students, aligned with faculty advisers, learned and developed the craft of doing research by joining up with their adviser's research, then extending their adviser's research, and finally branching into their own research. So, I decided to recapture the initial part of that process and see if it could be successfully transplanted into an undergraduate curriculum. Apparently, the patient survived and prospered.

How I Work with Students in a Research Class to Create Published Research

Fast forward about thirty years. Currently, our undergraduate psychology curriculum provides students with two practicum options: a field work placement and a research practicum. Students are required to take one or the other, but have the option of taking both. The research practicum course is offered every fall semester and typically seven to twelve students take the course. The first day of class, I lay out two or three research ideas (depending upon the size of the class and the magnitude of my other commitments) before the students. I try to describe the research ideas in enough detail so that when they privately indicate, later that period, their willingness to work on the different projects, they are able to make a somewhat informed decision.

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